For as long as she can remember, Leah has had the mysterious feeling that she’s been searching for a twin – that she should be part of an intimate pair. It begins with dance partners as she studies ballet growing up; continues with her attractions to girlfriends in college; and leads her, finally, to Eric, whom she moves across the country for and marries. But her steadfast, monogamous relationship leaves her with questions about her sexuality and her identity, so she and her husband decide to try an open marriage.
How does a young couple make room for their individual desires, their evolving selfhoods, and their artistic ambitions while building a life together? Can they pursue other sexual partners, even live in separate cities, and keep their original passionate bond alive? Vanishing Twins looks for answers in psychology, science, pop culture, art, architecture, Greek mythology, dance and language to create a lucid, suspenseful portrait of a woman testing the limits and fluidities of love.
Vanishing Twins: A Marriage, Leah Dieterich’s deliciously written and intimate memoir is consumed with questions of identity, love, queerness and establishment of self – in other words, all of the good stuff.
Dieterich approaches the tension between her identity and her relationship through the metaphor of Vanishing Twin Syndrome – a medical phenomenon in which one twin “consumes” the other in the womb. Dieterich sees herself as the remaining twin, arrived into the world as one half of an as yet unfulfilled pair, charged with searching the world for one who mirrors her perfectly.
She finds it in Eric, marries young and readies herself to live her life in perfect twin-ship with him. Eric is her life, her ambition and the centre of her universe – they agree on everything (turns out it’s not so hard if you are really determined), inspire each other every day and appear to be moving in a perfectly symmetrical trajectory.
Until, suddenly, they’re not.
For Dieterich, the problem of the vanishing twin is constant and evolving. When she finds her twin-ship, creates a “womb-like” life for herself and Eric where all that exists is each other, she risks herself becoming the twin that is consumed.
“It’s like we’re the same person. We finish each other’s sentences. This is what we’ve been taught to desire and expect of love. But there’s a question underneath that’s never addressed: once you find someone to finish your sentences, do you stop finishing them for yourself?”
Dieterich spent so much of her young life looking for her “twin”, she forgot to look for herself. In her search she found herself in intense relationships with her female friends – friendships where lines blurred, became sexually charged. She doesn’t want to lose Eric, but as she grows she finds herself desperate to explore her sexuality.
They make the decision together to open up the marriage to other sexual partners. Leah starts a long distance relationship with an artist, Elena, while Eric moves across the country to pursue his artistic career. In their non-monogamy, and subsequently making the choice to no longer live together, both find that they can establish their identities in a way that seemed impossible in their monogamous state. In spending time apart, and with others, it opens up a sense of self independent of the other that neither had had – not since they had been in a relationship, and perhaps ever.
It’s painful and complicated. You question, along with Dieterich, whether the relationship can possibly survive, if independence and monogamy are mutually exclusive states, what her queer identity means when she’s in a relationship with a man and how it can be expressed (and the tension that expression creates).
We are not supposed to live our lives in exclusive pairs. That’s not to say I think monogamy doesn’t work, but that our entire lives can’t, and shouldn’t, be built around one person. What Deiterich discovers through her sexual relationship with Elena, but also her creative partnership with her work colleague, Ethan, is that one person can’t fulfil all of her needs. With Elena she explores her queerness and her art, with Ethan she creates a successful working and creative partnership, and with Eric she grows and changes – pulling apart and drawing together but, ultimately, never letting go.
Through Vanishing Twins, Dieterich explores identity as not just one thing, but a tapestry of elements that evolve, switch and move over time. And that’s okay. That’s as it should be.